MURIEL SPARK enjoys a reputation as one of the greatest British novelists — if not the greatest — of the post-war era. She first came to prominence with her third novel, Memento Mori, published in 1959, which won great critical acclaim, including warm praise from Evelyn Waugh (to whom she bears a passing resemblance). The Girls of Slender Means, published in 1963, is the work of a writer at the height of her powers — not that there was ever much evidence of any later falling-off with Dame Muriel.
The novel starts with the splendid assertion that “Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.” The use of the phrase “long ago” evokes the world of fairy tale, and the territory that she stakes out is England, but not the one that we know. It is 1945, less than 20 years before the date of writing, but already a lost age.
From the first sentence, we are plunged into the reason that Spark is so good: she evokes time, place, and atmosphere so well. The book is set between VE and VJ Days; it is peace, and yet not peace; it is a time of victory that looks and feels very much like defeat; it is the era of the wonderful Schiaparelli dress that is shared between the members of the May of Teck Club. That dress is clearly a symbol. It has survived the war; and, as it turns out, it survives subsequent catastrophe, but at what a price!
On the face of it, the book is the story of a set of rather flighty girls who live in the May of Teck Club, a glorified hostel, in Kensington. In fact, one may be rather pressed to sum up the story in a few sentences. Is there, in fact, a story? Yes, but not quite as one would expect. Spark’s narrative technique is arrestingly modern, and as far from, let us say, Agatha Christie, as you can imagine. There is a dénouement, and there is a carefully prepared, in every sense, detonation, which brings the house down and concludes matters.
The use of the two days, VE and VJ; the mention of the unexploded bomb in the garden; the narrow window that is the only access to the roof; and, of course, that dress — all these serve as scaffolding, light but strong, that holds up the plot. These things provide form for the matter of the book; but the subject is really rather different.
What happens in the May of Teck Club between the months of May and August in 1945 is, in fact, the prelude to what happens later: namely, the fate of Nicholas Farringdon, who is the book’s hero, in so far as there is one, and the contrasting fate of Rudi, the Middle European literary man who specialises in making money through forgery. One is handsome, the other ugly. One represents the human soul called to the glory of martyrdom, something that the world cannot understand; the other represents the human soul lost in profitable lies and chicanery. In the end, which would you choose?
Again, we have contrasting young women: beautiful but surely selfish Selina; unattractive but clever Jane; and Joanna, of whom the club is, significantly, proud, the one who declaims poetry magnificently, along with the liturgy of the Anglican Church. The good die, and the others survive, but are their lives ever going to be as beautiful as those lives cut short?
© Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Alamy StockThe author Muriel Spark (1918-2006), who became a Roman Catholic in 1954
What makes Spark so good — and there are many things — is her ability to be lighthearted, amusing, ironic, blackly funny, and satirical, while at the same time being metaphysical and profound. She also has that never-to-be-praised-enough gift of being able to say something important in very few words. In a world in which novels have got longer and longer (mentioning no names), this is to be valued. We absorb Spark’s smooth prose at our peril; for in reading we run the risk of being disturbed, freighted, and challenged.
She is not for the fainthearted. The final tableau, which describes the VJ celebrations, is a case in point. It reads almost like a short story. In the midst of raucous joy, there is horror. This closing reminds us that we need to look beneath the surfaces of things. That Schiaparelli dress . . . is not just a dress, you know. And where is it now?
Back in 1945, all the nice people were poor, and the novel’s closing sentence reminds us of this, taking up the opening of the book. Certainly, Spark herself struggled mightily in the post-war years, before literary fame came and rescued her and made her rich. Were we better off when we were poor? Have we lost something? The novel evokes a sense of the past which, like a powerful narcotic, reminds us of the happiness that we once knew and will perhaps never know again. The story of the May of Teck Club and its residents is a lament for our collective lost youth.
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Roman Catholic priest, doctor of moral theology, and consulting editor of The Catholic Herald.
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark is published by Penguin Books at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-0-241-96399-9.
THE GIRLS OF SLENDER MEANS — SOME QUESTIONS
- What is the significance of Selina’s return for the Schiaparelli dress? Is this an “evil” act?
- Why are the women so focused on body size? What difference does it make to their lives and prospects?
- “Females who type the poetry and slept with the poets.” How are women kept out of intellectual life in this novel?
- Why does Nicholas, initially at least, idealise the May of Teck Club?
- “The government reminded the public that it was still at war.” What challenges does this liminal space between war and peace pose for the characters?
- “Once you admit that you can change the object of a strongly-felt affection you undermine the whole structure of love and marriage.” Do you agree?
- Does poverty excuse Jane’s fraudulent letters?
- What, in your opinion, brings about Nicholas Farrington’s conversion?
- “It was a glorious victory.” What, for you, was the significance of the violence observed by Nicholas at the VJ Day celebrations?
- In what different ways are the girls of “slender means”?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 2 July, we will print extra information about our next book, Cuthbert of Farne by Katharine Tiernan. It is published by Sacristy Press at £12.99 (£11.69); 978-1-78959-009-8.
Published in 2019, Cuthbert of Farne is one part of a trilogy of novels about the life of the Northumbrian bishop and “warrior saint”(c.634-687). Set in seventh-century England, a time and place dominated by war in the north and the threat of religious divides, the novel tells the story of Cuthbert’s journey from young soldier to bishop from the perspective of Princess Aelflaed (later Abbess of Whitby), Cuthbert’s abbot Eata, and Cuthbert himself. Tiernan uses historical fiction to flesh out the known facts about Cuthbert by considering the psychology and human motivations behind key decisions in his life.
After a childhood spent in north Northumberland, Katharine Tiernan studied English literature at the University of York before working as a teacher and community artist. Now a novelist and author of short stories, Tiernan describes her writing as often focused on the thresholds between the past and present, and the immanent and transcendent, as well as on the “spiritual presence” of place. She now lives with her husband in Northumberland, where much of her work is inspired by the landscape. Lindisfarne, which features in all three of her Cuthbert novels, is visible from her writing desk.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
August: Platform 7 by Louise Doughty
September: This is Happiness by Niall Williams